“I’m a Bondurant. We don’t lay down for nobody”.
Much like his famed western, The Proposition, Hillcoat’s latest film displaces the conventional setting of the genre. While his previous film presented Australian history with the genre codes of the traditional western, Lawless occurs decades after the typical western setting, but once again indirectly, but deliberately criticises America’s past.
In a land of racial segregation, horrific violence and fearless criminality, with lawmen exacting frontier justice of an earlier time – torture, blackmail and ultimately murder – Hillcoat’s continued vision of American history is one, not of celebration, but a nightmarish nostalgia full of vile characters.
At the centre of this prohibition-era western are an outlaw family who, despite being owners of a gas station, earn their living producing and distributing illegal moonshine. The narrative, based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 biographical novel The Wettest Country in the World and adapted by Nick Cave, follows the lives of three Bondurant brothers and how their legendary status made them targets of a new deputy looking to make his mark and competitors keen to take a cut of their profits.
The three brothers – Forrest, Howard and Jack – are classic examples of the anti-heroes frequently glorified within traditional westerns. As outlaws their criminality, though impossible to condone, is shown as a necessary action of the period. With the great depression sinking the nation into turmoil, only the fittest, those with guns and money, can thrive. Through thick and thin, the closeness of the brothers offers some tenderness, but due to their fiercely competitive and ruthlessly vengeful personalities they are ultimately despicable characters.
Thankfully there is some solace within the otherwise disheartening film, in the form of two supporting female characters; Maggie, a former dancer searching for a fresh start and Bertha, the innocent preacher’s daughter who falls for youngest Bondurant brother, Jack. However, as they form relationships with the notorious outlaws, it isn’t long before they become entangled within their dangerous lifestyle and fall victim to this ruthless setting.
Though it doesn’t have the same tormenting impact as The Proposition, with many audiences sure to be deterred by its biographical format and surprisingly pleasantly conclusion, Lawless is another brilliantly crafted, impeccably performed and gloriously put together critique of America’s past.